I think I once stood up Brian Czarnik. I was hanging at the Elvis Room in Portsmouth, N.H., and got to talking to a few dudes at the bar. They were in this band Oblivion, on tour from Chicago, that was out of luck and stuck in some predicament. They seemed like nice guys, funny and self-effacing, and I told them they could crash at my place in Dover the next night. Of course, when the next night rolled around, I was out when they called (and called and called)—it wasn’t until I got back that I found their increasingly frantic messages on my answering machine. Sorry, dudes.
If you’ve toured, you have stories like this: missed connections, vehicular catastrophes, chance connections. And of course even more names—tons and tons of names: bands, musicians, promoters, zine editors, venues, labels.
Band biographies are cut from the cloth woven from these stories: the connections, networks, and names. Brian Czarnik’s Just Words is no exception. Starting from his pre-punk metal youth, he walks us through his time in the aforementioned Oblivion, as well as his time in the Bollweevils.
His storytelling is friendly and inviting throughout—one of Czarnik’s strengths is his affable tone. It helps that I was in the throes of nineties pop punk as he was playing because the names throughout were familiar. I must’ve seen Doc Hopper a dozen times during their heyday, so I dug their accidental prominence in a tour anecdote about Czarnik falling asleep while driving and zig-zagging the Bollweevils’ van across Route 95.
With all that said, I wonder how much resonance these stories will have to readers who weren’t familiar with the specifics of that particular scene. Some anecdotes, such as the aforementioned van fiasco, incorporate sensory details—the crutch of any college composition instructor—in such a way to bring the stories to life. Others, though, assume foreknowledge and ultimately wind up feeling like so many items to be ticked off a list: the band was on this label, played these fifteen cities on a tour, put out this single, hung out with this scenester.
Take an early scene: Czarnik goes to band camp, attends classes, and learns that music is a viable lifestyle choice. He tells readers he’s hooked on music from there on out. That’s the thing—tells.Not shows. What he claims to be a turning point in his life happens over the course of two short paragraphs, making it nigh impossible to really feel the impact. With some editing, the best stories here could have been expanded out to their full potential, which shows up in fits rather than consistently.
With some editing, Czarnik’s prose style would also have been easier to swallow. Throughout Just Words, clunky sentences mar the potential of the narrative and anecdotes. Witness an example from page 146: “I was living the cheapest of a life I could possibly do other than be homeless.” Read that out loud. Yikes. I understand the sentiment, but page after page of unedited, half-formed thoughts like these make reading a chore. At one point Czarnik mentions, in parenthesis, that he probably spelled Quadiliacha’s name wrong. Rather than taking the three seconds to make a fix, he just plows on. I know that surface-level stuff like this can sound nitpicky, but these criticisms are representative of the whole—with more effort, Just Words could have shined, but it often reads like the author doesn’t care enough to improve his own work. And “caring isn’t punk” is a crutch.
Depending on their storytelling and prose style, books about being in bands can transcend the genre and stand on their own. Brian Czarnik’s Just Words is the kind of book I want to like more than I do; all the threads are certainly there, and it comes from a place that’s easily recognizable to a lot of Razorcake’s readership. That said, large passages of this book read like a list—or worse, an unedited first draft. This is especially frustrating because Brian seems like a nice guy, and it’s easy to see potential in the raw material presented here. Hopefully his next pass will be better. –Michael T. Fournier ($12 postpaid, facebook.com/